Plan now for return to school

(July 28, 2020)

You don’t have to be a parent of school-age children, or a teacher, to be worried about what will happen come September.

The summer months trickle away, and we have no more to go on than vague ideas about reduced classroom size, alternate school days, and expecting children — even teenagers — to embrace physical distancing instead of each other.

As caseloads soar in the United States, this educational paralysis needs to stop. We have to plan for the reality that either there will be no face-to-face teaching this fall, or whatever meagre attempts are begun in September, the wheels will quickly fall off and schools again will be closed.

Because it’s summer, we are keeping things under control, for now, so the push is on to return people to work — even if the government has to bribe them. In this political and economic climate, however, parents and teachers can expect no overt help from educational officials to prepare for the next school year. They need to make contingency plans of their own.

So, drawing upon my 30-plus years as a teacher and almost as many as a parent, here are some suggestions.

Sit down with your kids and make a list of what worked and what didn’t work in the spring. For both lists, figure out why, then ask what could be done to fix the problems. There may be answers that can be worked out over the summer (such as special study spaces, or new equipment, or better schedules), and other things that can’t be changed. Enlisting your kids’ help to analyze the situation will enable their co-operation, and may even offer solutions you hadn’t considered before.

Don’t assume distance education is automatically worse than face-to-face. It is different. In fact, it is really only missing two elements — touch (which we are not supposed to be doing anyway) and smell. Now, classroom odours might help students remember things better, but I’ll bet daily cookie-baking would be a better memory aid.

So, work with that difference. If you have the technological tools, there is much that can be done over the internet to engage students with more interactive learning (say, in math) than most would ever get in a physical classroom. Video tools can be used on tablets to have students interact with each other and with “teachers” (grandparents? Other relatives at a distance?) Reading out loud is easily supported that way — or if a telephone is required instead, a headset is a cheap addition.

If the kids have smartphones, they are an easy distraction, so boundaries of when to use them might be necessary — but they can also be used for making videos, researching assignments and lots of other (supervised) interactive activities.

Most importantly, don’t assume your kids will “fall behind” in this next year — whatever that means. Survey the curriculum with a critical eye, and you will find that, apart from basic math, reading and writing skills, the information they learn is hardly earth-shaking. In fact, even Grade 12 sciences are normally retaught “the right way” in first-year university courses… making Grade 4 science more fun to do than life-altering if it is missed.

If Manitoba Education started grappling with real-world pandemic issues, the department should announce right now that once the vaccine is available, students will be able to get credit for their missed grades by passing a challenge exam on the materials required for that level — and then circulate a study guide for parents to follow.

Even without that, focusing on the real 3R basics (reading, writing and ’rithmetic) would still be an important way of improving your kids’ educational outlook and opportunities. The pandemic may, in fact, offer a blessing in disguise — and, for once, make the digital divide irrelevant.

Over the years, I have seen a substantial decline in literacy — not just the inevitable complaints about students’ inability to write, but especially a decline in their ability to read. Parents are partly to blame — check around your house, and count the books there… and then count how many books your children have seen you read yourself, in the last year.

The inability to read quickly is disastrous in any field of study. So, can’t afford the new computer? Lousy internet? Get them to read books instead — any books will do. Simply words in a row.

A pandemic educational plan should include increasing your library. Perhaps we need a neighbourhood book swap every Sunday morning until fall, with books left at the curb. People whose kids are grown have lots of books; it is a matter of arranging safe local distribution, which could be organized over the summer through social media.

Make improved reading skills (and writing stories) the focus of home education this next year, and your kids will ace those exams in the fall of 2021, and beyond.

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Now more than ever, hope matters

Misspelling the Maasai word for “hope” — osiligi — in a Kenyan primary school (2014)

(March 28, 2020)

ACTIVISTS have always said that we need to find another way to do things. Another way to live together — to live with the Earth, instead of against it.

For too long, the response, from too many people, has been, “No. There isn’t another way.” Or, “I don’t want to look for one.” Or, “We did it once and it didn’t work – we tried.”

Through COVID-19, Mother Nature is delivering a blunt message: “Think again. Try harder.”

We need to listen, but that means major cultural change, for communities everywhere. People think such change is difficult, but culture changes all the time.

Since the Second World War, for example, western industrial consumer culture and its ideals of material prosperity have gone global. But so has the damage to the biosphere caused by the tools, systems and attitudes of that culture. So have the social costs, reflected not in global prosperity but in income inequality, made worse by people losing their homes and livelihoods in rural areas and crowding into unplanned cities.

However much the economic indicators have continually crowed about higher gross domestic product, the happiness/well-being indicators have continued to drop. The gross national happiness index, promoted by such countries as Bhutan, was certainly mocked at Wall Street parties. Can you even count happiness?

Happiness might be hard to measure, but unhappiness is literally embodied. Too many of us are malnourished or overweight (or both), inactive and unfit, afflicted with problems that a healthy body should manage. Unhealthy and unhappy seem to go together.

And now, here we are. Anyone who doubts that we are all in this together, inextricably linked to everyone and everything on Earth, just has to watch the graphs of COVID-19 cases, and the global economic dominoes that continue to fall as a result.

Scientists, activists and fiction writers have been predicting a global pandemic for decades. Their audiences have ignored them, sold their books at garage sales, or left theatres thankful that the heroes saved the day, once again, before the popcorn ran out.

As we watch people adjust to whatever this “new normal” means — and it will likely be months before anything even remotely resembling the “old normal” returns — there are some truths already emerging about what matters most:

Neighbours matter. Other people need our help, just as we will certainly need theirs.

There are no strangers anymore — just people we haven’t yet met. If you feel alone, don’t just sit there — reach out.

Relationships matter. Whether the people are near or far, close companions or people (even family) we have hardly talked to in years, those relationships are how we stay grounded, reassured, comforted, encouraged and motivated to get through whatever today brings.

Community matters. No one is in this crisis alone — how we all behave, together, affects how we will survive it, together. Competition in these circumstances is pointless — co-operation makes the group stronger.

Sharing matters. If we each contribute what we can to the well-being of the community, those relationships are strengthened, for whatever comes our way.

Generosity matters. It takes many forms, and so do the gifts we can give. The gift of time, of care, can be as simple as a phone call, or the offer to pick up food or medicine for the most vulnerable. If you still have a job or an income, think of those neighbours who currently do not.

It’s too glib to say religion matters, because in a time of crisis, when the artillery shells fall, there are no atheists in a foxhole. But this situation makes us think about our life priorities, what we are doing with our time and our abilities, what we mean to the people around us and about what we can do for others. Religious or spiritual beliefs can help us to reflect on those things.

Technology matters — as long as we remember technology is in our heads, not just our hands. We can do things differently, so think hard about how to change our culture so what matters most to us is supported by our technology, not undermined by it. We are all powerful, capable people, and there is always another way if we try harder.

Finally, hope matters. With enthusiasm, I once misspelled the Maasai word for “hope” on an ancient blackboard, with a stub of chalk, in a ramshackle school in rural Kenya.

“Osiligi” was everywhere in conversation and on signs. At a deeper level, it means more than just “hope.” It is the faith that what is done right aligns with how the universe is meant to unfold, for a continual blessing from generation to generation, as part of the rhythm of life.

Amid such abject poverty, I learned a valuable life lesson from them.

Their courageous response to the challenges they faced every day was: “Osiligi.”

May it also be ours.

Peter Denton is an activist, author and sustainability consultant based in rural Manitoba. His seventh book, Imagine a Joyful Economy (a collaboration with Gus Speth), was just published by Wood Lake Books.

Pointed questions for visiting PM

(January 18, 2020)

If I could ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet one question before their Winnipeg retreat this weekend, it would be: “Would you shoot the children?”

I admit this is a brutal way to start a column. But it does cut away the fluff and go straight to the heart of the problem.

As this is being written, RCMP officers in full tactical gear have barricaded the traditional territory of the Wet’suwet’en in British Columbia, and blocked journalists from entering the area. We don’t know what orders have been issued around the potential use of lethal force against anyone who breaches their lines.

Forget the unresolved issues of Indigenous land claims, the court cases still unfolding, the opinion of human rights tribunals, and any other number of issues. The pipeline goes through. Period.

Forget the climate crisis, the need to keep the oil in the ground, and especially forget we signed the Paris Agreement to limit global warming. Ignore the fires in Australia — and ignore that, except for a miracle, the same fires could have burned in dry northern Manitoba this past summer. Spin the issue of carbon tax some more, offer smoke and mirrors, distract the crowds with bread and circuses, and make sure the pipeline goes through. Period.

Around the world, children are staying out of school, by the millions, to strike for the climate. Greta Thunberg became the face of that global movement, but there are many other young people, including right here in Canada, who will fight just as hard for their future.

But what does that mean? Will it mean the kind of civil action that #ExtinctionRebellion has led elsewhere? Does it mean there will be demonstrations, blockades, protests — attempts to block pipeline construction, among other things?

Of course, it will. The global system is not working. We are literally burning up our children’s future and yet somehow still avoid dealing with what is so obvious to them. There are very few predictions of what lies ahead past 2050, when today’s teenagers will only be middle-aged. We don’t even talk about that nightmare, anymore.

Young people can see we are not making decisions that respect the land and all of the children of Earth, as we should. Forget considering the seventh generation — we can’t even manage to care for the next one.

Because of our lazy luxuries, our sluggish and indolent response to the climate crisis, their future — and that of their own children and grandchildren — is going up in flames, as surely as that Australian bush.

Why should we expect them to say nothing, in response? Why should we expect them to do nothing, either?

Thankfully, the protests so far are non-violent — the next generation has learned what happens when popular opposition resorts to violence. The young people march instead.

But when young people take to the streets in increasing numbers, as they will — supported by the adults who care for them and understand their concerns for the future — what will our leaders do?

Will they order out the riot police, in mirrored helmets, to beat them down with clubs? Gas them? Use water cannons? Fire rubber bullets to maim them? Perhaps shoot to kill?

Before you say such things could never happen here, remember how the Harper government dealt with the G20 protests in Toronto a decade ago.

When unjust social or environmental policies are enforced by the machinery of the state, confrontation is inevitable. People may get hurt or die as a result. Situations such as the one on Wet’suwet’en land are the result of our failure to find another, better way forward, one that not only respects everyone involved, but offers ecological justice, too.

Political leaders who raise their own children to respect other people and the Earth they share can expect tough days ahead, because the next demonstration may see their own kids in the front row, walking toward those same riot police.

One way or the other, children are preparing for the future we have created for them. They would be in school, studying, if we had solved the climate crisis. But the fact they are on the streets instead is a sign of our failure, our cowardice, our hypocrisy — and what’s worse, makes me wonder about our apparent willingness even to use force against them rather than change the course of our society toward a sustainable future.

So, Trudeau, as the movement for climate justice grows, do you plan to deploy RCMP tactical squads or the Canadian Armed Forces to suppress Canadians, including children who object to government policies or protest government inaction?

Or will you publicly commit, here in the Heart of the Continent, to finding another way, one without such dangerous potential for us all?

Dance on a cliff, and someone certainly will fall.

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